THIRTY years have passed since that unforgettably amazing day in Tokyo, Japan, when 42-1 outsider James “Buster” Douglas shocked the entire world – sporting and otherwise – by somehow managing to defeat the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson.
At the time of the fight – one not too many experts or fans were especially intrigued or excited about, such was the seemingly inevitable quick win by “Iron” Mike – the defending champion was seen by many as a lethal-punching monster more deserving of the tag of invincible fighting machine than any heavyweight before him.
Much has been written about this incredible fight over the years; and it was not just an amazing upset, but also a great action fight, full of twists and turns in the plot along the way, with some controversy thrown in for good measure. And the hero of the piece, James Douglas, has been asked just about everything he could possibly be asked about that historic event. But, with interest in the one and only night “Buster” fought with the heart and desire his formidable skills deserved at a swell once again (not that fans will ever stop talking about this fight) Douglas is likely to be in much demand right about now. The man who briefly stood atop the entire world is well aware he is remembered solely for his one day in the sun; the remainder of his career of interest only to the hardest of hardcore boxing fans. And James Douglas is rightfully proud of his sensational performance.
Back at the tail end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, it was Tyson’s ruthless blend of speed and power, not to mention his withering intimidation skills, that had almost everyone convinced Douglas would be nothing but a lamb to the slaughter in Tokyo. But the earlier career of the man from Columbus, Ohio also proved to be a factor when it came to the dismally viewed chances he was given against the ogre he had the temerity to challenge.
29-year-old Douglas was a man with four losses on his record, he was not known as a particularly hard puncher and worse, and throwing up the biggest red flag when it came to his chances of winning, he had a reputation as a notoriously undisciplined trainer. Having quit in the 10th-round of a fight he was winning against Tony Tucker back in May of 1987, Douglas lacked heart, so said the experts.
“The Tucker fight, that was a learning experience for me,” Douglas says today about that fight for the vacant IBF title. “All those early fights (James also lost to David Bey, Mike White and Jesse Ferguson), they were growing pains, learning experiences, that I took things from. I had to make the transition from the amateur game to the pro game. I left the amateurs at age 15 and I went pro at age 21. I had to learn the game and adjust. I fought some good fighters – Randall Cobb, yeah, he reminded me of my father with the relentless pressure he brought (Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, 1960’s middleweight contender). The Tucker fight, I wasn’t mentally focused as I should have been, but I still believed with all my heart I’d become heavyweight champion of the world one day.”
Having refused to be discouraged by his capitulation against Tucker and spurred on and motivated by the recent death of his mother, Douglas – who had won six in a row since the loss to Tucker – trained like never before and got himself into fantastic shape for Tyson, both mentally and physically. Douglas weighed-in at 231.5-pounds, some ten pounds less than he had weighed for his last fight and he was ready (and, despite what one of the myths from Tokyo insists, Tyson was also in fine physical condition, his body tight, muscular and lean at 220-pounds).
“I was experienced by the time of the Tyson fight; I had earned my stripes,” the now 58-year-old says in his softly spoken demeanour. “And going into the fight, I knew one thing: that I’d give it my best and fight hard. I was in great shape.”
To the shock of everyone, Buster took the action to the 23-year-old Tyson from the opening bell and he was soon putting almost every round of the fight in the bank inside that strangely quiet Tokyo Dome. Primarily due to his superb left jab, his good movement and his accuracy Douglas, surprisingly, looked for all the world as though he was on his way to a previously unthinkable points victory.
But then, in the eighth round of what had already been a remarkable fight, Douglas was cracked by a sensational right uppercut to the chin from Tyson, who had been in trouble on the ropes. Downed and made to skid back across the canvas, the challenger looked hurt.
“I wasn’t hurt at all,” Douglas maintains, as he always has, all these years later. “I was more off balance. He hit me while I was squared up and I tried to stop myself from falling but I wasn’t successful. But I was totally into the fight and I was totally aware of everything. I saw in his eyes that he was all woken up and ready to try his best to get back into the fight and pull out the win. But I was ready for him and I made sure I got right back at him.”
Douglas, after displaying frustration over how he’d let his guard down by banging his fist on the canvas just before beating the count a second or so before the bell ended that soon to be controversial eighth round, indeed went back to beating up Tyson in the ninth and 10th sessions. Who will ever forget the electrifying combination Douglas ruined Tyson with, punctuated as it was by that smashing right uppercut to the jaw? Also unforgettable was the sight of a felled Tyson, his left eye badly swollen, almost pathetically trying to first grab and then replace his mouth-piece. But the jaw-dropping KO Buster scored in that tenth and final round soon gave way to talk of how there had been a “long count” in the eighth-round. This was no Jack Dempsey–Gene Tunney revisited, but all the same, Buster was in danger of losing his title before even having had time to enjoy it.
Douglas did benefit from a “long count,” in as much as the count he received from the referee, Octavio Meyran was as much as three or four seconds behind that of the count administered by the official knockdown timekeeper, yet this was no fault of his own (incidentally, when Tyson went down in the 10th, he too was given an almost identical “long“ or “slow“ count). Buster beat the referee’s count and that is all that matters. James could in no way have known how the third man in the ring had picked up the count of the knockdown timekeeper too slowly. And Don King’s post-fight attempts at having the rightful decision overturned were as disgusting as they were bombastic. In any case, and all these years later, Douglas maintains he could have beaten the count much quicker than he had done.
“I could’ve gotten up quicker, earlier,” he says. “I took the eight-count, gave myself a body check, to make sure I was on point, and then I got up. But I was able to get up at any time. If he [referee Meyran] had counted faster, I’d have gotten up faster.”
But to his utter dismay Douglas, having dedicated his awesome win to his late mother and beginning to celebrate his victory, was soon informed of King’s actions.
“I went through a lot, all that B.S. It was like I never stopped fighting after the actual fight in the ring, when I’d won the title and the fight. What had become a wonderful childhood dream come true became a nightmare.”
Thankfully, justice, and sanity, prevailed and James was rightfully seen by everyone – Tyson and King included – as the undisputed heavyweight ruler. But the court case that had been endured (Douglas going to court to get out from King’s promotional clutches), along with the stress of the entire situation, had come at a cost. No longer did Douglas have the urge to train and fight hard. He was a sad sight in his first and only defence, when an overweight Buster was virtually a sitting duck for the unbeaten Evander Holyfield.
“I’m still mad at that today. By the time I got to camp [for the Holyfield fight], it was so tough. It was my fault, I know I shouldn’t have let all that stuff, going to court and all, affect me like it did, but I wasn’t prepared at all for that fight. My big plan at the time, was to beat Holyfield, then defend against George Foreman and then give Tyson a rematch before calling it a day. It never worked out that way unfortunately, but to this day, I know I had a great career and I know that I achieved more than anybody ever thought I would.”
The critics were all over Douglas for “disrespecting the title” the way they say he did in the months following his dismantling of Tyson. But after such a big bang, after such a dizzying high, maybe it’s understandable that Douglas was never going to match his special moment. Factor in all the “B.S” that he had to go through courtesy of King and maybe it’s not so strange at all that Douglas was so out of it by the time of his meeting with “The Real Deal.”
Today, James certainly seems content with all he achieved (“I have no regrets”) and though he was expected by many to achieve more, James Douglas is fully aware of the fact that his name will be remembered for as long as there is a sport called boxing. Not bad for a whopping 42-1 underdog who almost an entire planet full of people had completely written off in the lead up to his date with destiny 30 years ago.
And on the often brought up subject of what would have happened if Douglas – the in shape variety, naturally – and Tyson had boxed a rematch, Buster has no doubt as to what would have happened.
“I would’ve beaten him even better in a rematch,” he says, allowing himself a smile.
Holyfield: “Mike looked at me and I looked at Mike, I made it clear that whatever he did, however he played, I would do it all night…”
Lewis: “All of a sudden Tyson turned into King Kong. Where did that guy come from?…”
Williams: “It was the second or third round when I just thought, ‘Forget it, I’m going to war with you.’…”
McBride: “Thank God he had the mouthpiece in, or I’d be the only guy in Ireland with just one nipple…”